Reconciliation requires debates grounded in hard data

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

Back in 1950, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development spent $922 per registered “Indian.” As of 2012, the renamed Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada spent $9,056 per registered First Nations person.

Neon billboard right here for those who don’t read closely: That and every other figure soon to be recited accounts for inflation.

That is just one federal department. Consider another federal ministry, Health Canada. The data shows that health care spending per eligible First Nations and Inuit person rose to $2,626 annually in 2012, up from $2,055 in 1997. And First Nations and Inuit people have free access to many items (dental care and pharmaceuticals to name two) that most other Canadians pay for out-of-pocket or via purchased insurance.

Or consider education spending. In 2010/11 average overall funding on a per student basis for those on-reserve was $13,524. That was greater than the funding for other Canadians who attend public school, at $11,646 per student.

I note the numbers because when Aboriginal issues arise, as with the recent disclosure that Kwikwetlem First Nation Chief Ron Giesbrecht made $914,219 in tax-free compensation, much posturing takes place. The Assembly of First Nations is opposed to the new federal Transparency Act. But its national chief, Ghislain Picard, claims his organization yet favours transparency “by First Nations governments to their citizens.” But note the dodge: if finances are disclosed to band members, other taxpayers should just go away.

That’s akin to saying only Toronto residents should be given access to or care about city financial statements, including compensation and expense amounts for Mayor Rob Ford and councillors. Wrong. Required, widespread disclosure of tax-funded salaries and even the non-tax money that flows to a politician (on-reserve or off) is critical to prevent corruption.

Now let’s get to the broader issue of taxpayer transfers to reserve governments. If myths are to be replaced by understanding—including dispelling myths from those who reflexively defend current reserve governance models, such understanding must be grounded in accurate data.

And the data shows that spending for First Nations people has risen dramatically, especially when compared with per person spending on all Canadians.

Since 1950, Aboriginal Affairs department spending on a per First Nations/Inuit person basis (excluding department spending on northern matters) rose by a factor of 10; that outpaced the rise in per person general program spending (on both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginals), which rose by five times the 1950 amount.

All of which raises two critical questions. How is the money spent? And does the current system help or hinder Aboriginal prosperity? That system includes the collective practices on reserves, recently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. The court shut down attempts to grant individual First Nations people, where desired, the same level of property rights that all other Canadians enjoy.

Any fruitful discussion about improving the plight of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples must address these questions with hard numbers.

None of this means the spending levels in 1950 were optimal. Or that Canada’s Aboriginal populations were not severely disadvantaged. That era was hardly golden.

Ever-increasing amounts have been spent on First Nations. No matter how one cuts the data, the spending trajectory—after inflation—has skyrocketed. But to use two examples—average on-reserve graduation rates under 40 per cent and average unemployment rates over 20 per cent, more money has not solved the problems. So it is long overdue to ask what else might cause such poor socio-economic fallouts.

Regrettably, the reluctance to discuss spending too often ignores specifics on how the money is spent or whether collectives help or harm people. That does little for reconciliation between Aboriginals and all other Canadians. Well-intentioned debates over how best to improve the lives of Canada’s Aboriginal population are critical. Such debates must start with actual, solid numbers.

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